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The Steamboat Phoenix courtesy of The Mariners Museum.

Copyright © 2010-2020 Hodos Historia LLC.  All rights reserved.

For thousands upon thousands of years, humans had always known that there was a force far more powerful than they upon this Earth, and that was what they had come to call Nature. 

Whether it manifested itself on land, or on water, or in the sky, the forces of Nature dominated Man at every turn.  Only with the natural means of animals, or wheels, or paddles, or sails, did humans have a chance—and in the minds of the ancients, only a chance—to overcome its power, if Nature so chose.

Attempts to overcome this supremacy always proved fleeting.

In the early 1780s, hot air balloons rose into the skies above France, leading witness Benjamin Franklin to believe that he had looked through a window into the future.  But for most others, such endeavors led to an entirely different conclusion—

“What an interesting experiment, yet it will never serve any practical purpose.”

So it also was for the many efforts to create a steam-powered boat in Europe and America through much of the 18th century.  Inevitably, the inventors of such machines could make them work for only a few limited experiments, or soon found themselves and their creations facing a solid wall of all-too-human resistance.

This resistance was grounded in more than just the perception of impracticality.  It also was based upon the unspoken fear of daring to try to overcome Nature.

Then, at the dawn of the 19th century, along came a brilliant, creative, and controversial American by the name of Robert Fulton.  In 1807, he declared his intent to build an experimental “steamboat,” which would be used to initiate a continuous passenger service between New York City and Albany, New York.  With the success of his North River Steam Boat, Fulton showed that it was possible to alter artificially both a person’s location and the amount of time it took to change it.  In so doing, he also broke through the enormous psychological barrier that had existed in people’s minds; it was, in fact, possible to overcome Nature to practical effect.

It took time for many people to accept Robert Fulton’s triumph as the truth.

One man who did not need to be convinced was a sloop captain named Moses Rogers.  He had witnessed the first successful runs of the North River Steam Boat to Albany, and the experience gave him the fever—steamboat fever.

Moses soon became one of the first steamboat captains in history, taking command of one of Fulton’s first rivals, the Phoenix.  In his new profession, Moses learned not only the technicalities of this new technology, but the peculiarities of a traveling public just getting used to this new mode of transport. 

In time, running these steamboats on rivers, lakes and bays became a normal and accepted part of American life in the years immediately following Fulton’s triumph.  But taking such a vessel on a voyage across the ocean was a different proposition altogether.  Experienced mariners didn’t think it could be done.  These early steamboats, they declared, were just too flimsy and unwieldy to withstand the dangers of the deep.

But Moses believed otherwise.  Combining his knowledge of the old mode of transport—sail—with the new mode of transport—steam—he set out to design a vessel that was capable of overcoming the many dangers of the sea.  This craft would be not a steamboat, but a steamship, the first of its kind.

Moses found willing partners for his vision in the booming port of Savannah, Georgia.  In due course, they formed the Savannah Steam Ship Company, to build what would become the first steamship the world had ever seen.

Finding a crew for this new-fangled contraption proved to be exceedingly difficult. Traditionally-minded mariners looked upon its unnatural means of propulsion with the greatest suspicion.  To them, it was not a “Steam Ship”—instead, it was a “Steam Coffin.”